Strolling through my local Best Buy and Walmart stores last month, I couldn’t help but feel almost suffocated by a persistent presence that greeted me at the door and stayed with me until my business was done. Massively metallic soldiers, each brandishing explosive firepower urged that I buy the latest HDTV, or thought my weekend would be more exciting with a bag of flavored tasty tortilla chips, maybe washing them down with a few cans of a refreshing, sugary caffeinated beverage. Don’t get me started at the suggestion that I should replace my boxer shorts with something just a bit more…Spartan.
Of course I’m referring to Halo: Reach, the highly-anticipated prequel to the original trilogy of Halo games that began on the original Xbox console back in 2001, and its effort to convince the citizenry of the world they couldn’t possible live without it – and its periphery products! Many stores had dedicated several shelves solely to the game, often at the expense of others, and it was impossible to go ten steps without being exposed to what could only be called a strategically-perfect advertising campaign. It’s a well-oiled machine those of us who cover the videogame market are used to by now. A hugely big-budget game is heavily championed prior to its release, its respective publicity cites its desire to be the year’s biggest [of all-time], and much attention is paid following its release to see how its earnings fit within the industry’s relatively short history.
But when a game like Halo: Reach, with its lavish development and advertising budget, manages to sell extraordinary well and cannibalize the media’s coverage, should we even be surprised? Few games bring with them the ability to virtually take over major retailers, parade down New York City, and monopolize much of the industry’s leading websites and blogs. At this point, the only surprising thing would be if Halo: Reach didn’t – forgive the pun – reach the lofty goals set by its publisher and its well-armed publicity machine. It’s a process that’s become so overpoweringly omnipresent, I can’t help but wonder this most sacrilegious of things: If the the Halo franchise is really so self-evidently popular, why bother spending so much time and money advertising it?
The answer, as I’ve come to find out, is that it’s not.
As such, the following evaluation of the franchise may be seen as an anti-Halo screed by its most elite defenders, and that would be unfortunate. Nothing could be farther from the truth, as I consider myself a fan of the franchise. Perhaps not the monstrously dedicated fan that some of you undoubtedly are, but a fan nonetheless. At the time of this writing I’ve already finished Halo: Reach’s campaign (co-op) and spent dozens of hours being destroyed (and occasionally destroying) in the various multiplayer modes through Xbox Live – all good qualifiers to my relative impartiality when it comes to extracting the game’s true value from the unfortunate hype it’s been saddled with.
picture credit @ gamespot
Joining the Elite: The Legendary Campaign
Microsoft’s pre-release hype has become legendary for its hyperbolic predictions, perhaps the result of having gotten themselves into a media war of sorts with Activision over claim to the “biggest entertainment launch of all-time”, an honor that regularly bounces between them, Activision, and Take-Two Interactive (for Grand Theft Auto). Fans have become used to the hype-train that accompanies each of these companies’ biggest releases, which see new editions of Halo, Call of Duty, and Grand Theft Auto effectively taking over the videogame world with their massive advertising campaigns. Our TV and internet screens get flooded with pretentious ads, our grocery stores stocked with tie-ins, and good luck stepping into a major retailer (Best Buy, anyone?) without having the games shoved in your face – months before they even hit shelves.
With Halo: Reach the goal was simple – to become the latest ‘biggest entertainment launch of all-time’, and regain bragging rights from Activision’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2.
They didn’t quite make it. Instead, they had to settle for ‘only’ generating $200 million in first-day sales, which was spread across various editions and bundles of the game, including a standard ($59), Special Edition ($79), Legendary Edition ($149), and the requisite game-of-the-month console bundle ($399), and even a specially-branded Halo: Reach wireless controller for $59 (a $10-hike over non-decaled versions). It’s difficult to extrapolate just how many copies of the actual game were sold based solely on revenue, but updated NPD estimates for the month of September reveal that Microsoft was able to sell an impressive 3.29 million copies of the game during its first month of availability in the US, which easily bests last year’s Halo: ODST (1.52 million) but still minutely less than 2007’s Halo 3 (3.3 million).
What’s more, according to Gamasutra, Halo: Reach’s first-month sales seem to reflect the franchise’s ‘immediate’ appeal may be waning with the very group that Microsoft depends on – the core Xbox 360 user. In its analysis of September’s NPD numbers, the website estimates that “If Microsoft has enlarged its base of core Halo fans, the initial sales figures for Halo: Reach don’t demonstrate that.” They go on to show that “Halo: Reach was bought by 15% of the Xbox 360 installed base at launch, while Halo 3 was bought by 49%”, reflecting that Microsoft had tripled the console’s installed base but apparently not the number of users willing to pick up a new Halo game on day one.
It’s a long-held assumption for those in the videogame world that without the Halo franchise, we probably wouldn’t have the Xbox. At least not in the way we view the platform, which is playfully referred to as ‘The Halo Machine’ by fans and critics alike, owing to the crucial importance the franchise had in establishing Microsoft’s console – and subsequent Xbox Live online gaming service – to an industry dominated by the likes of Sony and Nintendo. But while those two produced platforms overflowing with the likes of Super Mario and Gran Turismo, the Xbox would come into the world essentially mascot-free, and would need something to help set it apart.
While Apple was just beginning its pre-iPod comeback on the back of the triumphant return of Steve Jobs and their best-selling iMac computer back in 1999, their half-hearted attempt to capture a piece of the PC gaming world was not to be, despite highly-touted debuts from id Software and others. One of their biggest titles was, of course, the original Halo, which despite being developed to help usher in the Mac’s return to gaming’s forefront, was quickly absorbed into Microsoft’s fold and repositioned to help them launch the original Xbox console. Online may have been excised to meet its launch window, but refined system-link and split-screen multiplayer quickly made the game a favorite among those looking to finally graduate away from the last gasps of GoldenEye64. Its 2004 sequel would help establish the console FPS genre as a force to be reckoned with and, indeed, eventually overtake its PC cousin as the most-played venue.
picture credit @ mygamertalk
Halo Fatigue: Running Low on Fuel
The release of Halo: Reach, however, only punctuates the frustrating lack of evolution within the franchise since then, which for years has carried the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality to practically every crevice of its design. This is a world where the most powerful weapons aren’t machine guns, grenades, or even giant metallic tanks, but your fists. The online strategy to winning remains almost entirely the same as it ever has, as the key to winning lies in unloading an entire clip into opponents (to crack the shield) and then adding a quick punch, and the occasional wayward grenade to mix things up. Over-balanced to a fault, next time you play try to count the number of dual-pummels, dual-headshots, and other load-balancing efforts to socialize a game that is still played out with nearly identical space marines in arenas that only emphasize suicidal attacks over nuanced strategy.
Reach’s attempts to augment one of rival Call of Duty’s most attractive features – augmented perks – feel like last-minute additions to the stew, and I question the ineptitude of classifying something as simple as ‘sprinting’ as a perk. There are new additions to the available options, such as the amusing headhunter and worthless rally modes, but for the most part it’s largely the same game (and same gameplay) we’ve had since 2004’s Halo 2. It’s become the safe first-person shooter for fans; an entirely predictable experience.
It’s clear that while Bungie may have experienced their own ‘Halo Fatigue’, the series’ lack of evolution most likely stems from Microsoft’s direct involvement. From operating systems to internet browsers, the company has a long history of delaying progress of their software until it can’t be avoided, instead choosing to wring every last ounce of usefulness from their respective platforms until their dominance is challenged from the outside. Witness the agonizing wait between modernized editions of Windows, IE, Windows Mobile, and others in the face of encroaching competition and you’ll see a pattern of delayed evolution that’s undoubtedly kept the Halo franchise rooted. One can only imagine how bad it must have been for them to consider separating from a content partner that helped them bring about one of the decade’s most identifiable franchises, choosing autonomy over virtual enslavement.
I’ve been told that the Halo games have great stories. I’ve also been told that I need to read the various novelizations, which I hope tell the tragic story of the Fall of Reach better than the actual game’s clumsy and often inelegant narrative. At least with Master Chief we had someone to rally around, but there’s no such comfort in the stale-as-toast comradery of Reach’s Noble 6 and his doomed squad mates, as the game applies as many Hollywood clichés as possible, including telegraphed suicides and countless action set-pieces. Without such ‘familiar’ faces as Master Chief and computer-AI Cortana, the franchise has largely regressed into the faceless band of bulky space marines that’s come to represent an entire segment of the FPS genre.
In truth, this largely unremarkable and generic story of faceless space marines buckles under the weight of this wholly inappropriate attempt at franchise myth-making by its stewards at Microsoft, who seem intent on grafting a more meritorious mythos onto its threadbare frame. Its passable as far as sci-fi pulp fiction goes, and certainly fun for what it is, but there’s nothing particularly remarkable about the saga of a band of technologically enhanced space marines making countless ‘last stands’ against an alien horde that threaten humanity’s extinction. Again, I’m told the events of this game (and the franchise as a whole) are told more meaningfully elsewhere, and while I can’t vouch for the literary works, I was impressed with the Blu-ray/DVD release of Halo: Legends earlier this year – but then, I’m a sucker for anthologies.
For Microsoft, this is a franchise whose success is only measured in dollars amassed – and usually those amassed during each individual game’s launch window. That’s completely understandable, as franchises – especially the really popular ones – tend to make their most money during this time, and those with expansive histories are ripe for monetary exploitation. No doubt Microsoft has researched George Lucas and the billions that his own little space saga regularly brings in, going so far to effectively duplicate the same advertising mechanics and – in some cases partners – to swim in those same lucrative waters. The campaign brought out familiar faces like Pepsi and Frito-Lay, whose yummy combo of Mountain Dew and Doritos have become the de facto ‘breakfast of champions’ for the Halo brand. No sign of any special Burger King tie-ins this time around, though.
Lucas was successful in negotiating a massive $2 billion advertising partnership with Pepsico in 1996 to help market and drum up business for what would become the Star Wars prequels, effectively letting the soda company market the films for him (and 20th Century Fox). I’ve seen no such ancillary evidence to suggest that Microsoft and any of their many partners entered into a similar agreement to license Halo-branded products. With Halo product expected to saturate practically every medium known to man, Microsoft’s Stephen McGill revealed the marketing budget behind Reach would see a “60% increase” over Halo 3’s mammoth $40-million dollar marketing budget, which would result in a massive $64-million dollar campaign to sell the game.
And they’ll need every penny, too, as the last two entries in the franchise (Halo 3: ODST and the RTS spin-off Halo Wars) were practically financial disappointments, at least when directly compared to their predecessors. ODST, also pegged as a prequel-of-sorts, saw its lifetime sales roughly half those of Halo 3 (which is somewhat appropriate, as it contained roughly half of Halo 3 – the multiplayer half). Microsoft brushes off this lack of economic evolution by not referring to the game as a ‘major installment’ in the series. Of course, that still didn’t stop them from charging the full $59 price as other ‘major installments’ (even after promising to sell it at a more-appropriate budget-price).
Finishing the Fight: The Fallacy of Halo’s Reach
This only further illustrates my point: if Halo was really such a historically popular franchise, why would Microsoft need to advertise each new release to fans as strongly as they do? There’s ample evidence to suggest that while Microsoft would have you believe the franchise is on par with the likes of Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, or even Harry Potter, their PR department may be guilty of laying it on a bit too thick. Perhaps nobody sums this sentiment up better than Phil Spencer, corporate vice president of Microsoft Game Studios, who claimed “When it comes to the size and scope of a franchise and especially the dedication of the fans, no game is bigger than Halo.” Even Guinness Book of World Records, whose own credibility is fast swirling down the toilet bowl of irrelevance, had the franchise topping their list of ‘Top 50 Best Video Game Series’, the result of online voting so demonstrably inaccurate its hyperbole rivals that of 2008 president candidate Ron Paul’s.
The reality is more somber, as not only is Halo no longer the Xbox 360’s biggest franchise (that would be Call of Duty), it’s not even the console’s biggest first-person shooter (Call of Duty, again, with 2009’s Modern Warfare 2). For all its bluster and media-savvy, Microsoft has failed to turn the franchise into one that outsells either of the last console generation’s undisputed leader’s (the Playstation 2) biggest – Grand Theft Auto and Gran Turismo. The results look even worse when comparing the franchise head-to-head with this generation’s leader, the Wii, as Nintendo’s console can not only brag to having many of the best-selling titles of all-time, but whose marquee game – Wii Sports – has sold well over 120% of every Halo game ever made – combined. Even discounting it as a pack-in, second-place holder Wii Play is currently just a few million shy of equaling Halo’s combined tally, too.
In In fact, the Halo franchise doesn’t even register in the top thirty best-selling videogame franchises, although, to be fair, such things aren’t an exact science; Halo’s 5 releases (discounting PC re-releases) have each been limited to single-platform releases, which makes their 30+ million tally all the more impressive. If nothing else, at least Microsoft has been able to effectively neuter Sony’s PlayStation 3 tallies, as that console has yet to produce a single title that bests the tallies of Halo 3, or anything resembling the best days with the PlayStation 2.
There’s no disputing Halo’s popularity. This is a franchise that’s seen remarkable success not only in its native videogame land, but across a wide range of connected media, including best-selling novels, action-figures/collectibles, soundtracks, spin-off animation, and has spawned at least one of the industry’s most recognized heroes in Master Chief. An attempt to film a live-action movie with Peter Jackson may have been fallen through, but from that effort came one of the best science-fiction films in recent years in District 9, so it all worked out just fine. In short, this is a franchise beloved by millions across the world, and one that’s earned its place among the most popular first-person shooters ever made. But pushing it into the realm of ‘most iconic’ or among the ‘biggest games’ of all-time is a bit of a stretch, and one that does it a disservice.
Capcom’s Street Fighter, Nintendo’s Super Mario, and EA’s Madden Football each hold the distinction of not only being the most identifiable in their respective genres, but also the best-selling. You could even add Sony’s Gran Turismo (driving simulation), Blizzard’s World of Warcraft (MMORPG), and Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto (sandbox) to the mix and the argument would still hold true. Despite Microsoft’s best efforts to buy its popularity and a gaming press too preoccupied cheerleading to critique it fairly, the Halo franchise hasn’t quite earn its place among them just yet. The razzle-dazzle of soft drink cans and massive in-store promotions may help convey the appearance of a world-conquering thing that vanquished all, but pull back the curtain and you’ll see a horse of a different color; a refined, somewhat predictable first-person shooter that’s highly respected, fun to play, but really not much more than that.